Ever since the World Cup in 2010, I’ve been watching a fair amount of soccer. Mostly La Liga, Premier League, and Champions League but a smattering of other games here and there. As my affection for the game has grown, I’ve mostly made my peace with diving. Diving in soccer is the practice of immediately falling to the ground when a foul has been committed against you (or even if one hasn’t) in order to get the referee’s attention. To Americans who have grown up watching American football and basketball, it is also one of the most ridiculous sights in sports…these manly professional athletes rolling around on the ground with fake injuries and then limping around the pitch for a few seconds before resuming their runs at 100% capacity. I still dislike the players who go down too often, lay it on too thick, or dive from phantom fouls, but much of the time there’s only one referee and two assistants for that huge field and you’re gonna get held and tackled badly so how else are you going to get that call? You dive.
Except for Lionel Messi. It’s not that he never dives (he does) but he stays on his feet more often than not while facing perhaps the most intense pressure in the game. Here’s a compilation video of Messi not going down:
In recent years, efforts have been made on various fronts to apply the lessons of Moneyball to soccer. I don’t think diving is one of the statistics measured because if it were, it might happen a lot less. Poor tackles and holding usually occur when the player/team with the ball has the advantage. By diving instead of staying on your feet, you usually give away that advantage (unless you’re in the box, have Ronaldo on your team taking free kicks, or can somehow hoodwink the ref into giving the other guy a yellow) and that doesn’t make any sense to me. If you look at Messi in that video, his desire to stay upright allows him to keep the pressure on the defense in many of those situations, creating scoring opportunities and even points that would otherwise end up as free kicks. It seems to me that Messi’s reluctance to dive is not some lofty character trait of his; it’s one of the things that makes him such a great player: he never gives up the advantage when he has it.